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Photo by Victor Boyko / Getty.

Controversy—Italian Style!

Rachel Tashjian

Rachel Tashjian

When it comes to political provocation, the Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana say: “Come on in, the water’s hot!”

Photo by Victor Boyko / Getty.

At the finale of the Dolce & Gabbana menswear show this past weekend, the musician Raury—who, along with several children of celebrities, young royals, musicians, and Instagram influencers, had been tapped by the brand as a millennial model—strode to the end of the runway and pulled off his oversized yellow Dolce & Gabbana sweatshirt and see-through vinyl bomber—your rich, fabulous aunt's idea of that streetwear stuff—to reveal a message on his bare chest—"PROTEST. GIVE ME FREEDOM. D&G I AM NOT YOUR SCAPEGOAT"—and raised his fist.

The Atlanta native was responding to the brand's dubiously tongue-in-cheek "#BOYCOTT DOLCE & GABBANA" campaign, a $245 slogan t-shirt and accompanying video of smiley-faced youngsters that felt a little too much like Kendall Jenner's ill-fated Pepsi advertisement—which was itself poking jest at the public outcry over the First Lady Melania Trump's recent appearance at a G7 event in Sicily in a Dolce & Gabbana coat so dense with silk flowers that it sells for $51,500. Wheeeeeee!

"The 'Boycott Dolce & Gabbana' T-shirt they created completely makes a mockery of what 'boycotting' is," Raury told GQ in an interview earlier this week. He became even more uncomfortable when the designers' team began passing out the shirts backstage and asking the participants to pose in them. "They were making us represent something that only I knew what it was about," Raury said, explaining that he became aware of the brand's welcoming attitude towards the Trump family only the day before the show, when he googled them, but found many of his fellow runway companions had not done the same. "These kids are about to co-sign this, and they don't even know what it means. They're using the shit out of us. We're not scapegoats. You are not about to wash your hands with us. They were really pushing for me to wear it, too, specifically."

Meanwhile, in a backstage interview taking place seemingly simultaneously, Dolce explained the shirts in an interview with Vogue: "It's irony! A joke! People use heavy words very easily these days. There is too much aggression. We think what the world needs is love—and for us, fashion is love."

Of course, all the coverage—which, as fashion drama, wouldn't be complete without a semi-related Instagram war with Miley Cyrus—has reporters digging up scandals past for context, meaning that everyone is also talking again about Dolce's distasteful comments on gay parenthood and I.V.F., even though they apologized shortly thereafter (once again with a declaration of love: "We love gay couple. We are gay. We love gay couple. We love gay adoption. We love everything," Gabbana told CNN).

When it comes to controversy, the Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana's stance seems to be: Come on in, the water's hot!

Which means they may have actually dug Raury's protest. On Instagram, Gabbana's lightning rod platform of choice, the designer has sparred with Cyrus and called out haters from the commentariat, but has remained uncharacteristically silent on Raury's act of dissent. Perhaps it's a reverence for their millennial stars—fashion designers are typically rather devout when it comes to their model-muses—or simply a "point taken." As Donatella Versace said backstage at her show, also this past weekend, "It's the millennials who decide what's going to happen" in fashion now. And designers can't simply invite pop culture over to play and expect its players to fold into their own bubble. The political and social awareness of younger millennials, and their motivation to translate those principles into action, is twinned with their knowledge of music, fashion, and visual art—a combination brimming with possibilities, as Raury's runway protest demonstrated.

What's more, D&G's initial boycott commentary doesn't seem entirely unhinged. The designers seem to have a habit of saying the most explosive and controversial version of what they really mean and then scaling back. Indeed, the word choice may have left something to be desired: boycotting, as Raury pointed out in GQ, "is the people's voice. A protest is the people's voice. It has power. It changes things." The designers' use of it was too flip.

But it does underscore that the fashion industry has gotten too precious about who wears their clothes, with the media keeping a maniacal running list of designers who have publicly vowed not to dress any members of the First Family. The industry may want to put millennials on the runway, but they know that at the end of the day they need women with Melania-sized wardrobe budgets (who are likely neither aware of Instagram influencers nor concerned about a designer's political positions) to keep things financially afloat. Their "boycott" campaign suggests Dolce & Gabbana—the brand and the designers themselves—are hip to this reality.

What the dress-or-don't-dress squabble is really about is whether or not it's "permissible" for a designer to give free clothing to a political figure in exchange for some very high gloss publicity. It's curious that no one seems to be saying that it shouldn't be, ever—especially because there's a kind of funhouse mirror populism to Melania buying her own Gucci blouse rather than borrowing or receiving it as a kind of gift in collaboration with the designer, as previous First Ladies have often done. (And Brigitte Macron's penchant for borrowing Louis Vuitton is perhaps a revealing refraction of her husband's idea of socialism.)

And it belies a fundamental prong of clothing's power: once it's out of the hands of the person who makes it, its interpretation is controlled by the person wearing it. The designer's intention—Marilyn Monroe on a fantastical foxhunt through the Cotswolds! A runaway heiress on yacht, but she's a witch!—is almost moot. That high fashion clothing is produced in multiples (and often knocked off) and designed to proliferate is one of the realities that make it singular among other kinds of art. When it's finally ensconced in a buyer's wardrobe, as all clothing is destined to be, that original intention can sometimes barely, if at all, be detected; sometimes it's misconstrued or even subverted—as it was so powerfully on last Saturday's runway.